The Future of The Plumbing Industry
It's been said that construction industry is 200 years of tradition unencumbered by progress. It's also been said that the plumbing industry has undergone more change during the past five years than it has over the previous 50. Somehow it's fitting those two statements from industry figures appear in this, Reeves Journal's 90th Anniversary issue.
Taken together, these two statements provide a plausible assessment of the plumbing industry today: a rapidly advancing trade driven by cutting edge technology on the one hand while, at the same time, it's an industry with a sizeable institutional memory and a great deal of respect and reverence for the old-school ways of doing things--the tried-and-true techniques and traditions that are still the hallmark of a master craftsman.
Even so, the industry may be on the cusp of a renaissance of sorts. A previous generation of plumbers who have been on the job or at the helm of companies for years are retiring or otherwise leaving the business. That's the natural way of things, of course, but consider for a moment the plumbers who are waiting in the wings to assume leadership roles. For some of them, there have always been mobile phones and a world without the Internet is just a faint childhood memory. This simple fact is going to play a role in transforming the plumbing industry of tomorrow, along with other factors that may not be immediately obvious.
Everyone is terribly busy during these economic times, but we targeted industry leaders who could squeeze us into their busy schedules to help us out with this story. Each of these individuals has a distinct and excellent vantage point from which to see the distant horizon, so we proposed a pair of questions: "What will the industry look like in 10- to 15 years?" and "What do you see happening today that you believe will get us there?"
Ike Casey, executive director, PHCC-NA, Falls Church, Va.
[NOTE: Ike Casey left his post as executive director of the PHCC-NA shortly before the print edition containing this feature was published. We wish Ike all the best in his future pusuits and we're sure you'll find his observations on the future of the plumbing industry highly useful and thought-provoking.--Ed.]
"I think the big thing that's going to be affecting plumbing over the next 10 years is the same thing that's affecting all businesses-the Internet," Casey said, adding that answer may be a little too simple: "It's how people communicate and sell and connect with their customers. I think associations were always the way people got together. Now their community is going to be electronic and how that affects the industry is really going to be interesting."
One way, Casey said, is there will be much closer ties between the consumer, contractor and manufacturer and wholesaler because of the sheer amount of product information and specifications available online.
"The consumer is going to know as much about the manufacturers' product as the wholesaler and the contractor do. When you walk in the door they're not going to say, 'Fix that leak", they're going to say, 'Fix that leak and put in that high-efficiency faucet made by XYZ Co.-Model No. 6021-and I expect it to save me $X over the next six months'.
Now, Casey said, instead of carrying three or four faucets on the truck, the contractor is going to have to either modify company processes to be flexible enough to provide that customer with the specific thing that's requested or come prepared to install it when they arrive on the call because it's already been purchased, either from an online source or a Big Box retailer.
"Contractors are going to have to start installing more customer-provided product, both in service and repair and it could get into commercial, too," he said. "Another thing is that people used to think they would always have all the money they wanted forever. Well, all that changed with this last recession and I think people who can do things themselves are going to start doing things themselves. That's always going to be there and, unfortunately for contractors, the manufacturers are making it easier and easier for the DIY-er. I guess the thing that worries me the most about the future is whether we have the business ability and enough plumbers to grow them so we can meet the needs of the marketplace. If we don't we create a vacuum and that's where the Home Depots can come in."
To these ends, Casey said the role of associations moving forward ought to concentrate on attracting the work force needed for the future. Others, though, are bright enough to recognize a golden opportunity when they see it.
"Lots of kids still talk about going into Information Technology. Then five of their friends all get jobs working for $50K a year in IT, but one of their other friends became a plumber and he's now got his own business and his house is paid for. People are going to see the real value in construction careers and, hopefully, in owning a business. I think you'll start seeing more entrepreneurs getting into the business than you have in the past. I don't think the associations or the industry is going to make that happen-I think it's going to happen naturally because it's going to be the most attractive way to make a living for those who want to be entrepreneurs."
You see the industry on the verge of a very big change in that basically there's a younger, well-educated battalion of people with an opportunity to get into it while the old guys are getting out, retiring.
"I think it is on the verge of a big change to a more modern, entrepreneurial type endeavor. That's what computers were and that's what plumbing was in the 1900s. It's gotten old and stodgy over the past 100 years and the people are realizing we have to have this-it's not going to go away and we're not going to outsource it to China, so why don't we stick our resources and money into this and make it work?"
Jo Keirns, executive director, Green Mechanical Council
Keirns, the executive director of this 400-member non-profit organization offering support and education to contractors, field technicians, and industry leaders, said an expanding "green" awareness, coupled with ever-more educated consumers, are working together right now to shape the industry of a decade or 15 years into the future.
"I think we're going to continue with the 'green', but it's going to become more government-mandated," Keirns said. "The codes are already starting to change-IAPMO just came out with its 'green' technical codes, and those are going to be used across the United States."
She said there may be a sort of parallel with growing "green" awareness and as we get going, "[to] where it's going to incorporate more of a health angle into it," she said. "I hate to say it, but now that you're looking at different healthcare plans that are going to be offered through the government, there is going to be a tie-in. I really think we're going to evolve, as did the United Kingdom and many European countries, and I think gas forced-air heating will become a thing of the past. Even for cooling you have radiant floor and ceiling heat can also cool as well. There's also geothermal-that will heat and cool. I think we're finally going to be on the right path and it's not going to be just a part of it or a movement. In 15- or 20 years it's going to be a habit--a way of life."
Shaping up to lead us down a greener path are factors such as a consumer who is now very educated and who is starting to demand "green" solutions in the form of products and systems. She tells the story of one San Diego woman who fired three contractors from her custom home job because they weren't up to speed on the "green" products and technology she wanted installed in her home that her own Internet research was turning up.
"When the whole 'green' movement started there were two things the general public had a hard time wrapping its head around. Some of them weren't really into saving the planet. You mention global warming and you can see their minds shut off," Keirns said. "But now they're starting to make the connection that they're not saving the planet, they're saving dollars. The other thing is that it's starting to get through to everyone that, even though it costs up front, they will be able to save down the road. The offset is there and we're getting more tax credits, we're getting more ways that we are able to help individuals put the new technologies into their homes."
Of course, if there are financial incentives-money savings, government credits or whatever-you can bet the ever more cost-conscious consumer is going to be learning about it and pushing for it. The consumer is more educated-now, instead of, "please fix my faucet," it's "please replace that faucet with this high-efficiency model number from this manufacturer." As a result it's starting to become a way of life, she said.
"They're already starting to embrace it, and businesses are, too. Businesses know that 'green' businesses are looked at more by the consumer. They want to be green so they can draw in more business. The general public is starting to become educated," she said. "I'm trying to explain to our contractors, manufacturers and technicians that, if they don't get aboard, they're going to be left behind. Consumers are there now. They're starting to understand low-flow toilets and showerheads and geothermal instead of HVAC forced air. This is all happening now."
Kirk Allen, CEO, Sloan Valve Co., Franklin Park, Ill.
From where Kirk Allen sits, there are four main factors that will color the plumbing industry significantly in the next 10- to 15 years or so. The first is the anticipation of a slow economic recovery. The commercial marketplace is overdeveloped but, during the recovery, the focus from a jobs perspective will be on government projects like schools.
"I also think we're going to get a big spate of commercial foreclosures here pretty soon," Allen said. "I think developers are going to be working on what's already built instead of sticking a new shovel in the ground. It's going to require converting a number of building types into other building types-things that were set up for heavy industrial are going to have to be set up for something else."
That metamorphosis, he said, will take a while on its own and there may not be a lot of meaningful commercial construction outside of the public sector: "Then, because of the aging population, there is going to continue to be attention paid to the healthcare sector. That's the general market," Allen said. "As far as the actual, tangible work, I think turnkey design-build stuff is going to continue to be strong and gain strength. I see technology elements like Building Information Modeling being necessary to help drive that. The reason I say that is because the plumbing industry, which has always been a discreet products market, is going to become more systematized and those systems will become sufficiently complex that contactors are going to need sophisticated tools like BIM to manage the transition."
BIM, or Building Information Modeling, is an increasingly implemented tool for the architecture, engineering and construction industry involving collaborative computer software that integrates CAD drawings and other data to provide views of a building from the point of view of any trade working on it, be it architect, engineer, leasing agent, or contractor. It also serves as a shared source of information on a building during its life to assist decision-making.
The reason for an increasing focus on systems rather than individual products is because the installed base of traditional plumbing systems might not be able to support the needs of some of the more high-performance fixtures on the market today.
"Those are going to be a lot more demanding on a plumbing system than the precursors," he said. "We already have concerns about HETs and highly efficient urinals because there's simply not enough water to move things along. It's something we're watching very carefully, but I also think that systems are going to be required to improve utilization of raw materials like copper to mitigate the costs of construction, installation and total cost-of-ownership over time. I think those things will be less a collection of discreet products and more leaning toward complete systems."
Another development to watch for, Allen said, is the influx of Chinese brands into the marketplace: "Not just Chinese-made products that are arriving as private-labeled products for U.S. companies, but actual Chinese brands," he said, noting a strengthening of the current "green" plumbing trend as well. "We'll start seeing that in 10 or 15 years as the Chinese economy grows and those companies get stronger. We're also going to see continued focus on sustainable and efficient building design and construction with an emphasis on constantly validating the performance of those projects."
Moving ahead continued attention will be brought to bear on conserving resources, Allen said, adding, "All too often the environmental and sustainable dialog revolves around carbon footprints, and I think the U.S. economy and environmental thinkers in general lose sight of exactly how much carbon is involved in water collection, purification, delivery, heating and disposal," he said. "I think we're going to have to start being more mindful of the carbon it takes to deal with water. It's a scarce resource, too. The drought continues throughout most of the U.S. and we're going to have to be more mindful of how we use it. Those kinds of things are going to continue to be top of mind."
Nancy Jones, executive director, PHCC-Texas
Training and creating a generation of more qualified techs will be the way of the future, according to Jones, who added companies will be running a lot leaner than in the past.
"In the next ten years, companies will finally see the value of training their techs the RIGHT way," she said. "Companies will only be able to compete and survive if they train their people and do quality work. Consumers won't tolerate less whether it is residential or commercial. Of course, plumbing companies will have to be 'high-tech' in order to compete. I think everything will be done on the internet-mail, faxes, even phone calls will become obsolete."
Also in the future, apprenticeship training schools will become a "must" rather than an option, Jones said, even though in-house training will continue at some companies it will closely resemble an apprenticeship school.
"All employees will be trained in new technology and those who are already experts will be in great demand. PHCC and other construction associations will be more important than ever, since they will be able to offer the training and communications that companies need to survive in this technological, competitive world," she said. "I also see all states finally mandating licensing (for consumer protection, safety and energy conservation) and continuing education. Unlicensed contractors will become a rarity in this highly regulated industry. The result of all this training and regulation will be companies that compete as professionals on a level playing field, operating with integrity and ethical standards."
"This article was originally posted on ww.reevesjournal.com."